KINGSTON, JAMAICA – For the first time, Caribbean governments and civil society came together to discuss access to information and public participation in governance at a landmark conference here March 20-21.
At the close of the conference, a Caribbean network on freedom of information was launched to help “improve standards for access to information in the region”.
Conference participants included journalists, government officials, and environmentalists from 11 Caribbean countries, funded by the Commonwealth Foundation. Tribune columnist Larry Smith attended, but the Bahamas government declined to send a representative.
Participants reviewed the status and effectiveness of freedom of information laws in the region, as well as institutional structures for implementation and enforcement. Jamaica is one of seven Caribbean countries (Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominican Republic, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Cayman Islands) to have freedom of information laws in force.
Five countries have draft laws pending, and both the Bahamas and Guyana have passed laws that are not yet in force. Gaps in implementation were noted in Belize, Antigua, and St Vincent and the Grenadines, which have laws that have not yet fully been utilised by the public.
Although the Ingraham government passed a freedom of information law early last year to satisfy a campaign promise, no commencement date was set for the act to come into force. Since the May 2012 general election, nothing more has been heard about the law.
No consultative process ever took place for this groundbreaking law in the Bahamas. However, it is similar to the Cayman Islands law – which was years in the making. The Caymanian Information Commissioner, Jennifer Dilbert, and Deputy Commissioner Jan Liebaers were active participants in and co-sponsors of the Kingston conference.
The conference had a strong environmental component, with participants from the Jamaica Environment Trust, the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the University of the West Indies. Bahamas National Trust deputy executive director Lynn Gape was unable to attend due to medical reasons.
“Freedom of information laws ensure that citizens can access official documents from their governments and gives them a voice in decisions that directly impact them and the environment,” said Danielle Andrade, Legal Director of the Jamaica Environment Trust. “Using Jamaica’s Access to Information Act, we were able to obtain documents to build our legal case to compel the government to fix a non-functioning sewage treatment plant at Harbour View, Kingston.”
The conference was a follow-up to the Rio+20 sustainable development conference last May, when 10 regional countries signed a declaration to work towards a legally binding instrument to promote the rights of access to information, public participation, and access to justice in environmental matters. Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to sign the declaration on Principle 10 followed by Trinidad and Tobago.
“The Principle 10 regional declaration is a game changing opportunity for the region,” said Carole Excell, senior associate at the World Resources Institute. “Caribbean governments need to embrace new regional approaches that seek to improve transparency, reduce conflicts over environmental decisions, and build capacity to implement new rights for citizens.”
The conference was funded by The Commonwealth Foundation, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Information Commissioner’s Office of the Cayman Islands.
Organisers included the Jamaica Environment Trust, World Resources Institute, the Access Initiative, Jamaicans for Justice, UWI’s Mona School of Business and Management, and the Access to Information Unit of Jamaica. The meeting was held at the Knutsford Court Hotel in New Kingston.